MARIANNA - After touring hurricane stricken areas Monday, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried pledged to make the recovery a focus of her administration.
"What I have pledged to everybody here is that we are not going to forget," Fried said during a news conference held at Chipole College. "We will stand side by side as we replant, as we get our crops back into the ground, and we make sure that this community is vital, not just for the economics but for the livelihood and for the heart and soul of the people living in these communities."
In Washington County, about 113,240 acres of its 145,179 acres of forestry were moderately impacted by Hurricane Michael, according to Florida Forest Service. The FFS did not report any catastrophic nor severe forestry damage for the county.
However, as was the focus of Fried's conversation Monday, more loss is expected through more trees falling, threat of wildfire and the spread of the pine beetle infestation.
The total damage to timber in the impacted area across the Panhandle is about $1.3 billion, according to FFS.
When speaking with farmers during the tour, Fried learned equipment and manpower to were their greatest needs. In response, she plans to partner with local representatives to roll out a funding package proposal to the legislature.
"A lot of it is just rebuilding the basics, in clearing out their land when they have got hundreds and hundreds of acres of timber on the ground and they know this is prime time to get it off before we get in the dry season," she said. "Time is not on our side. So, as much as we can get the equipment and more people to bulldoze the area."
Director of Florida Forestry Service Jim Karels said the focus on the timber industry is one that gives inland counties, such as Washington and Holmes, an edge over the coastal counties, in terms of recovery response.
"Emergency Management looks more at a city, where for the ag and the timber, we look more at the rural landscape during the pressing times," Karels said.
As a sign of the state's willingness to turn around to recovery, Karels also noted, for the first time ever, his department is involved is going on private lands to help owners clear them.
"From the forestry end, we're all looking to reduce the fire threat," he said during the news conference. "We're looking to help forest landowners open their lands, clear their lands and become working foresters and ag lands again. And we're working in the rural communities ... to replant these communities, to beautify them again and to some day really be able to step back and say we did it, we recovered."
Senator George Gainer, R-Panama City, and Representative Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, welcomed the commissioner to the area and further confirmed their bi-partisan dedication to supporting her efforts toward the Panhandle's recovery.
"Everybody is going to get up and dust themselves off," Gainer said. "And we're going to do better than we did before. It will be different, but it can be done."
He stressed the imperativeness of keeping the disaster at the forefront of media coverage, adding, "We've got a lot of help from Tallahassee, but we need a lot more."
"When people are trying to rebuild their lives, we don’t care about what political affiliation someone is, or where they come from," Drake said. "We appreciate everyone’s help."